When the Curtains Closed for Good: Movie Theaters on the Brink in the Age of Covid-19

A few years ago I went to see a matinee movie for my birthday and was looking at the previews that run before the showing of the film. I was struck by one message in particular. In it, an actor is sitting in a chair starring directly at the camera and says something along the lines of “Thanks for coming out to the theater today to see a film as it’s meant to be seen.” It was clear that this was more than just a subtle shot at the streaming networks, but also an emphasis that nothing could quite match the experience of seeing a film on the big screen. So far in 2020, the streaming platforms are flourishing and the theater industry is on its knees experiencing perhaps its greatest threat in recent memory.

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Teaneck Cinemas in Teaneck, NJ. Winter 2017.

First, a bit of perspective. As rough as a period this has been for movie theaters, it’s been equally hard for the travel/hospitality industry, event shows, and the media industry in general. However, it’s important to remember the human cost in all of this. As of this writing, more than 92,000 people have lost their lives due to the Coronavirus here in the United States and more than a million have been infected. My heart goes out to all those who have been personally affected whether through a loved one or a friend, and not to mention the countless healthcare providers and those essential workers who we too often forget about until we need them.

The Coronavirus didn’t become real for most Americans until mid-March. There’s a line of demarcation after the second week of March when we were all travelling around freely, to within a matter of days, witnessing society shut down in ways none of us had ever been accustomed to. With restaurants and events being canceled left and right, suddenly going to the movies was no longer an option. Films that were going to be released in the ensuing weeks and months like the latest James Bond film, were either pushed back to later in the year, or in the case of the Fast and the Furious, dropped from a 2020 release all together.

Films that decided not to push back their release dates, opted for a new strategy: direct to consumer via the streaming platforms. The film “Trolls World Tour” did this, sparking a direct backlash for the movie theater industry. It’s easy to see the potential snowball effect: studios bypass the traditional theaters in lieu of the streaming platforms, or just have consumers pay for the film upfront, in which they render the theaters obsolete. It’s worth noting however, that for a film to be considered for the Academy Awards, it must be shown in a theater setting, though that rule has been waived this year due to the Coronavirus.

As a filmmaker and someone who enjoys going to movies, these are uncertain times to say the least. The theater model is clearly feeling threatened in ways it hasn’t been before. However, I still believe that there’s no better way to see a film than at the theater. Between the huge screen, surround sound, and darkened environment, it’s very hard for most people to replicate that specific environment in their homes. Also, the communal feel of watching a scary movie together or a comedy, and everyone laughing at the same joke, is an experience unique to theaters. Who knows when we’ll be able to have those experiences again.

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